British Mormon teenagers study hard to prepare for the missionary or motherly roles of their fast-growing religion. Sarah Cassidy reports
EVERY morning before school a growing group of teenagers forgoes an extra hour in bed for an hour of quiet study and devotion.
The school day starts early and finishes late for more than 2,600 teenage British Mormons who follow the church's education programme, described by its organiser David Cook as "a missionary preparation course in the broadest sense of the word".
Many of the clean shaven, smartly dressed young men who try to spread the Mormon message by knocking on doors are graduates of the Church Education System's four-year course, which takes place before or after their mainstream school day.
The Mormon church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is now the fastest growing religion in Britain while other churches report declining congregations. Mormon congregations have increased 30-fold to more than 180,000 since the mid-Sixties, when they could count on only 6,500 believers.
Church leaders give some of the credit to the Church Education System course, run by 17 co-ordinators and followed across the UK, Scandinavia and Iceland.
"Some classes start at 6.30 or 7am. Devising a curriculum that teenagers will get out of bed for is quite a challenge," said Dr David Cook, area director for North Europe of the CES.
The Mormon Church was founded in New York in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who claimed he was guided by an angel to dig up gold plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. Mormons believe Jesus's apostles corrupted his teachings after his death and that theirs is the restored church of Christ. Members must abstain from tea, coffee, alcohol, cola, drugs and pre-marital sex.
The education programme teaches Mormon teenagers to resist the temptations found outside the church. It gives students a grounding in the scriptures while trying to create the missionaries and good mothers of the future.
"A lot of our young men have gained the confidence to knock on doors as missionaries because they have years of rigorous study behind them," said Dr Cook. "We are teaching the girls to teach their own kids in the future. Their knowledge has to be solid if they are to be the first teachers of the next generation."
Young Mormons attend mainstream schools, and although some miss RE lessons at their parents' request the church is happy for them to participate fully. "Like anyone, we just want our young people to go out into the world, take part, and try to shine where they can. Our own programme will fortify them against the many temptations they will find in the world," said Dr Cook.
Around 400 groups of 14 to 18-year-olds study over four years the old and new Testaments, the Book of Mormon and the history of their church. Their teachers are a mixture of executives, housewives or local shopkeepers trained to impart religious wisdom by Dr Cook and his team.
"Most of our work is in teacher training," he said. "The course is taken by local Mormon volunteers, usually in their front rooms or local chapel."
One group met in a mainstream school for three years, taught by a Mormon member of staff. "Coincidence meant that all the local Mormon children went to the same school. We were delighted to be given permission to use the school but when the children moved on the group folded. We don't have the concentration of numbers to run anything more permanent," said Dr Cook.
Every summer graduation ceremonies mark the achievements of students who have met strict attendance targets.
"They just get a certificate. We once considered turning it into a GCSE to recognise their hard work, but never pursued it," said Dr Cook.
About a third of students do not finish the course. By 17 many have lost their enthusiasm. "Some came to find out more but decided it wasn't for them, but often peer pressure and teenage rebellion have more to do with it. It's not a bad drop-out rate for a group of teenagers, especially one that requires them to get out of bed early."
Dr Cook hopes to cast his net more widely: "I want to have 3,000 students by 2000. Once you're baptised into the Mormon Church we can keep tabs on you. We have everyone's name and address. Our teenagers are our target group. Once they turn 14 I want to know where they are."